Mike Flanagan’s latest is equal parts Stephen King adaptation and Stanley Kubrick sequel, and can’t quite bridge the gap.
At times, it’s hard to determine exactly where Doctor Sleep fits in the sprawling, messy world of Stephen King. Is it an adaptation of his 2013 novel, itself a sequel to his 1977 book The Shining? Is it a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s critically acclaimed (save for King himself) 1980 thriller? Is it both? Something else entirely? On its face, Mike Flanagan seems the perfect person to give this material: as horror directors go, he seems more innately attuned to King’s sense of supernatural dead and slow-burn character work over arch jump scares (see: The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald’s Game). But in adapting Doctor Sleep to the screen, Flanagan’s (who also writes and edits) reach extends further than his grasp, resulting in a piece of messy Stanley Kubrick collage art.
Little Danny Torrance, The Shining‘s crook-fingered moppet cursed with psychic powers he doesn’t understand and a father who slowly grows insane and dies one fateful winter at the Overlook Hotel, has grown into a lonely, destitute alcoholic (played with doe-eyed conviction by Ewan McGregor). Haunted by his childhood trauma, Dan eventually finds a semblance of peace in a sleepy New Hampshire town, eight years sober and making a modest living as a night attendant at a hospital, where he helps the dying sleep their way into eternal rest.
But he’s drawn back into the world of ‘the shining’ when he crosses paths with Abra (yes, like ‘cadabra’), a 13-year-old girl (Kyleigh Curran) blessed with extraordinary powers who finds herself on the run from The True Knot, a coven of slinky hippie energy vampires who drain special people of their ‘shining’ — their ‘steam’ — to keep themselves young. “The world is a hungry place,” says Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of their oddball troupe, and they’re more than happy to feast on anyone who can help them live longer, even children.
Like any King adaptation worth its salt, much of Doctor Sleep‘s appeal rests in its innate weirdness. Over the course of its two and a half hours, Flanagan et al. throw a lot at you, from psychic pen pals communicating via chalkboard to fauthfully-rendered scale models of Dan’s town square (“Teenytown”) to a group of vampire hipsters vaping souls from futuristic Clean Kanteens. There’s also the creakier elements of King’s oeuvre, most notably that we can’t seem to shake off the ‘magical negro’ tropes that come in the form of Carl Lumbly‘s Dick Hallorann, Scatman Crothers’ sage mentor (died in the movie, not in the book) who still appears to Dan from time to time.
But of course, these are all just vestigial affectations for King and Flanagan’s grander concerns — namely, recasting Danny along the emotional, trauma-ridden journey Jack Torrance goes through in the original Shining novel. Kubrick’s Jack was wild-eyed Nicholson crazy within the film’s opening minutes, unlike King’s portrait of a man struggling with insanity and drink; here, the sins of the father are visited upon the son, as Danny risks an already-shaky emotional foundation for the sake of an innocent child. These moments work more than they don’t, chiefly due to some patient performances from McGregor and young Curran.
For her part, Ferguson is all slinky menace and seductive charm as Rose the Hat, and her Spooky Goldfrapp routine is easily one of the film’s most gripping elements. Unfortunately, save for Westworld‘s Zahn McClarnon as Rose’s brooding partner, the rest of her Coachella Coven feels like an ineffectual drum circle, more pathetic than imperiling. (It doesn’t help that Abra’s powers feel so oversized, her resolve so immediately effective, that it hardly ever feels like our main characters are in much danger.)
Like any King adaptation worth its salt, much of Doctor Sleep‘s appeal rests in its innate weirdness.
In a way, Doctor Sleep‘s thematic preoccupation with the past dovetails nicely into Flanagan’s pseudo-sequel approach to the material, positioning the film as an explicit follow-up to Kubrick’s divergent vision of The Shining, right down to faithful recreations of the Overlook Hotel and casting Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd lookalikes (some more effective than others) when the story needs to revisit those characters. Compositions and shot movements deliberately echo Kubrick’s approach, right down to the dissolves, and Wendy Carlos’ haunting theme comes to bear in The Newton Brothers‘ otherwise sparse, clangy horror score.
But at the same time, Flanagan wishes for his film to act as a corrective to Kubrick’s vision, a messy reconciliation of King’s intent and Kubrick’s more culturally iconic take on the material. (If you’ve read the original Shining novel, you have a solid idea of how Doctor Sleep will end, Flanagan engaging in a bit of revisionist history after the fact.) The two approaches don’t meld very well, Kubrick’s saturated formalism clanking against the flat, desaturated look of Michael Fimognari‘s foggy cinematography. Flanagan moves the camera in fun, showy ways from time to time — he loves tilting the camera to play with geography, and one particularly fantastical meditation evokes Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. But the essential look of Doctor Sleep suffers by inviting comparisons to one of the moodiest, most visually innovative horror films of all time.
At one moment during Doctor Sleep‘s climactic showdown at the Overlook, Rose wanders down a hallway to see the iconic elevators open up and spill blood into the lobby of the hotel once more. But her coverage feels spliced in; we just cut from what is clearly Kubrick’s original shot to a reverse shot of Rose the Hat looking just off camera, slightly bemused, before moving on as if nothing has happened. They look like they’re happening in two different universes. That moment encapsulates Doctor Sleep‘s problems in a nutshell — two disconnected visions of King’s work, clumsily stitched together in a vain attempt at cohesiveness.
Doctor Sleep puts on a funny hat and vapes souls in theaters November 8th.